Category Archives: Memory

Robert E. Lee, Virtue, and Popular Perception

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Robert E. Lee as I have two presentations to get ready for in October and November.  I am going to focus on African-American perceptions of Robert E. Lee over time with an emphasis on recent years.  As I mentioned in a previous post I may begin with the Chapel incident which supposedly took place in Richmond in the summer of 1865 in which Lee takes communion next to an unknown black man.  The other possibility is to look at black newspaper coverage of the unveiling of the Lee statue in Richmond. 

Here is where I am in thinking about my topic, though please keep in mind that this is a work in progress.  We start off with the observations of so many past and present who claim that Lee is the embodiment of the Christian gentlemen or virtue in general.  Aristotle has some interesting observations in his Nicomachean Ethics in which he argues that instances of virtue ought to be recognizable by anyone trained to acknowledge the action or behavior which is a manifestation of that virtue.  If we start with these assumptions than it seems to me that what needs to be explained is why African Americans tend not to identify Lee in such a way.  The answer to this question, I believe, has little to do with a stand on the morality question one way or the other because I suspect that most black Americans simply don’t think Lee is relevant as a ethical/moral figure.  Now let me say that I have no interest whatsoever in arguing about whether Lee is or isn’t the embodiment of all things good or evil.  As a historian the question is almost entirely irrelevant and uninteresting.  My goal is to better understand how Lee is or isn’t perceived by a a section of our population.   

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The Last Black Confederate Surrenders

I’m not sure how I missed this story, but it looks like H.K. Edgerton has given up his crusade to teach Americans about the loyalty of black Southerners to the Confederate cause.  In the years leading up to his April 2007 decision to furl the flag Edgerton had become a popular fixture at various Southern Heritage rallies.  He is best known for his trek in full Confederate uniform, along with his trusty Confederate flag, from Asheville, NC to Austin, TX.  I’ve blogged about Edgerton in the past and what I take to be the proper context for interpreting his “mission.”  In short, I think Edgerton has been influenced by an overly narrow memory of Southern history that reduces everything down to the Civil War and highlights the centrality of whites at the expense of black Southerners.  Check out this YouTube video of Edgerton in action.  I couldn’t help but think that this is a guy who wants to belong and identify with a past; unfortunately, he is unable to identify with anything beyond a bunch of guys parading as dead Confederate chieftains.  How sad.

So why is Edgerton furling his flag?  Turns out he has been accused of fraud:

Elijah Coleman, a prominent activist in the Georgia SCV, wrote a widely distributed E-mail in early March accusing Edgerton of selling hundreds of SCV-provided battle flags at a NASCAR event and pocketing the funds. Coleman also claimed that Edgerton was demanding huge sums for a new car, even after he was offered one costing $3,000.

“I began to see a new H. K. obsessed with money as he spoke of everyone ripping him off on past visits by him to Florida and other states. Money was the main thing on his mind,” wrote Coleman. “I realized he was now in the heritage fight only for the money.”

The article does not include any admission of guilt on the part of Edgerton, only that he has refrained from engaging in any public appearances.  Edgerton seems to be proudest about his “H.K. Edgerton t-shirt” which is produced by Dixie Outfitters and included in its “Modern Confederate Hero Line.”  I think that about sums it up.

Remembering Southern Unionism

Does Unionism have a place in Southern memory?  Check out this very interesting article in the Tuscaloosa News on George Spencer and the 1st Alabama Cavalry.  Much of the article is pulled from Spencer’s testimony to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction which sought to impeach President Andrew Johnson.  There is a kind of reductionism in connection to Civil War memory in the South, which involves the tendency to see history as white-only and as monolithic.  The effect of this works to overshadow the various regions whose loyalty remained with the Union.  In comparison, we seem to have a much easier time acknowledging Northern dissent during the war.

Moving Beyond the Question of Black Confederates

One of this blog’s readers fired off an email the other day in response to my interview with Richard Stewart.  The content of the email was in response to some remarks made by Stewart about the “service” of black Southerners in Confederate ranks.  Here is just a brief segment from the email:

I was wondering if Mr. Stewart’s comments in regards to black Confederates affected your perspective on the subject at all?….If so, how has this affected your own interpretations in regards to ‘highly-debated’ subjects such as black Confederates? In other words – have you gone ‘the other way’ at all by accepting things that may have been previously rejected by yourself? I’m just curious.

Given previous posts on this subject I think this is a reasonable question.  When I was in graduate school in philosophy my professors encouraged me to think long and hard about the content and form of the question to be posed.  It makes sense as the quality of any potential answer is directly related to the sophistication of the question posed.  We need a little of this in the context of the “debate” about black Confederates.  The question has been played out and anyone with a modicum of analytical ability should be able to acknowledge it.  So, what is needed?

We need to understand the complex and changing relationship between Southern whites and blacks throughout the war.  We need local studies that help us piece together the influence of region, economy, geography, demographics, along with the changing nature of the war itself.  Most importantly, we need to move away from the overly naive language of loyalty and faithfulness to a perspective that considers the myriad ways in which the lives of blacks and whites intersected and the various factors that motivated Southern blacks to make the decisions they made.  Notice that the author of the email frames the question as a mutually exclusive choice of going one way or the other.  If we frame the question in terms of a mutually exclusive choice than our responses will be confined in terms of both range and depth.

I am currently reading through A. Wilson Greene’s new study of Petersburg in preparation for a review which will appear in the journal Civil War History.  One of the things that I like about the book is that Greene spends a great deal of time analyzing how the war shaped the region’s black population.  In doing so he steers clear of making generalizations about their loyalty.  Part of the problem is that historians have very little to work with in terms of cataloging the motivations behind different decisions.  And unfortunately many of the people engaged in this debate, especially those arguing in the affirmative, are interested in reaffirming their own insecurities about the Confederate past.  In other words, the presence of black Confederates provides sufficient evidence that secession and the Confederate war effort had nothing to do with an attempt to uphold or maintain the “peculiar institution.”

If we are serious about better understanding race relations before, during, and following the war we have to be willing to pose more sophisticated questions.  I actually don’t find anything necessarily morally repugnant to the idea of black Confederates (whatever it might in fact mean), but in the end the arguments are flimsy at best.  Consider the typical approach to the positive claim which can be seen here on a web page from the Petersburg Express.  That the authors of this web page believe this suffices as an argument for the existence of substantial numbers of black Confederates is laughable at best.  There is no analysis of evidence or any attempt at providing background or context for the printed sources or images.  The evidence shows what the authors choose to see, which maybe the case for anyone engaged in interpretation; however, there must at least be an attempt to discount competing interpretations and that is rarely present in such accounts.

Again, the interesting question is not whether black Southerners were loyal to the Confederacy or “served” in its ranks in substantial numbers.  What we need to know is how enslaved and free blacks responded to the war, and we need to understand this apart from what makes us feel comfortable because in the end it’s not about us.

Civil War Memory Reading List

John Coski and I wrote up a reading list for the participants of this past weekend’s Civil War memory conference.  The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but as a place to start.  That said, I think it’s safe to say that one could occupy a substantial amount of time with the studies on this list.  Feel free to suggest additional titles if you believe there to be any glaring omissions.